America the Desecrated

Our president has turned our most patriotic holiday into an endorsement of cruelty.

U.S. flags fly near of the Washington Monument on Flag Day
The Washington Monument.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Because Donald Trump is trying to get the National Parks Service to let him project an image of the Apollo 11 moon landing onto our national monuments, I’ve been thinking about the documentary Apollo 11, which I watched a few weeks ago. What struck me about that film, which is almost all footage of the events that led to the moon landing, was the repeated emphasis—by everyone from the astronauts to then-president Richard Nixon—on peace as an aspiration and ideal. It was everywhere. The plaque on the lunar module famously read: “Here Men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” The word appeared so frequently that in a different era I’d have tuned it out. But as things stand today, the word struck my ear as powerfully foreign. The president, who stakes his legitimacy on demonizing the majority of the country that doesn’t support him, is putting tanks on America’s streets on its most patriotic holiday in an effort to yoke love of country to love of himself. Presidents have not historically played an active role in Independence Day celebrations on the National Mall; most people thought using America’s symbols to burnish the reputation of one of its public servants was inadvisable. For that servant to spend public money and reward his donors with special access is illegal.
The last time the president tried to turn a holiday into a militaristic display with himself as drum major, the $92 million price tag provoked public outrage and sank the effort. This time, the administration is refusing to say what Trump’s circus of vanity will cost.

We do know bits and pieces. For instance: The administration is diverting $2.5 million from America’s underfunded national parks—entrance fees that families paid—to an event to which the president’s re-election campaign and political allies get special VIP passes. Draping the event in star-spangled streamers won’t disguise the fact that Donald Trump is turning the anniversary of the nation’s founding into one more tawdry campaign event, or that his “Salute to America” is a salute to himself. And note: He is doing so after posing with not one but three autocrats in gleeful photo-ops. He is doing so after a trip whose most prominent American representative was his daughter, a woman whose company just obtained five valuable Chinese trademarks thanks to her father’s negotiations with China. While the president bragged about his daughter’s beauty, the country reeled in grief at a photograph of a drowned father and his toddler daughter. While Trump posed with authoritarian leaders who murder their political enemies, Americans saw footage of camps where migrants, asylum-seekers, and children are sleeping on concrete floors, sick and trapped. The president believes there are fireworks big enough to make Americans forget what he’s doing in their names.

In Apollo 11, peace was articulated as the value that bound America to the world. Even Nixon’s undelivered speech—the one William Safire prepared for him in case the astronauts died—begins with that assurance: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” Nixon is hardly a moral model, and misplaced nostalgia for some past version of a dignified America is more exasperating than inspiring. Yet despite the source, I found myself moved by the repeated invocation of peace as a shared value.

There will be no such invocation on Wednesday. By inserting himself (and military tanks, over the military’s objections) into the event, and by conflating a celebration of American independence with a celebration of himself, Trump is trying to twist one of the few nonpartisan spectacles this country has left into an endorsement of the ugly policies he stands for, which includes “border security” so brutal, inhumane, and ineffective that people are dying in American custody. Even the Customs and Border Protection that Trump claims to champion is suffering from a mental health crisis. Some officers have seen their finances wrecked by the government shutdown Trump engineered. Others are dealing with the cognitive strain of denying their fellow humans rights or space or soap by forming Facebook groups that let them “blow off steam”—which here means incubate in a stew of hatred, misogyny, and contempt toward those whose wellbeing they’re responsible for. American taxpayers are paying private for-profit detention centers a fortune for this, for children to be packed like sardines in unsafe and unsanitary conditions as they slowly lose the will to cope. And now we are paying for a celebration—not of the country, but of the president that made this travesty possible.

There is no talk of peace now. During his speech to formally launch his re-election campaign, Trump made clear to supporters that their enemies lived among them, as fellow citizens. If the 1996 Will Smith vehicle Independence Day posited, hilariously, that the Fourth of July could become the freedom anniversary of the whole world, Trump’s Independence Day constricts the occasion to his friends. That’s a short list, and it includes some surprising figures. Last Friday in Japan, Donald Trump had a congenial meeting with Vladimir Putin, the man who ordered attacks on American elections and set the tone on the eve of the G20 by announcing that “the liberal idea has become obsolete.” Asked whether he would tell Putin not to interfere with American elections, Trump informed the American press that it was “none of your business.” He called Mohammad Bin Salman—who among other brutal acts ordered the kidnapping, torture, and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi—“a friend of mine” who has done “a spectacular job.”

To top it off, Trump arranged an “impromptu” meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and became the first president to set foot in that country. The Trump administration’s sometime goal of “rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021” will not be met, but this seems not to matter. The spectacle of chummy strongmanship was what mattered. (There are perhaps 120,000 people in North Korean political prison camps.) Trump—denying Tucker Carlson’s claim that the dictator was wheezing—praised the dictator’s health. Then, having made clear the kind of peace he values, he flew home, just in time for the country to celebrate what he is.

Happy Fourth.